Is Dementia Becoming More Common?

Dementia, unfortunately, is a common and deadly illness. One form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, is the No. 6 leading cause of death in the United States. Some reports suggest that more people are being diagnosed with dementia than ever before. Is this true — or is something else going on?

Here’s what we know about dementia, how many people have it, and whether or not you’re more likely to develop it in your lifetime.

What causes dementia?

Scientists know that dementia involves damage to nerve cells within the brain. But the possible causes of dementia depend on the type.

Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is a type of dementia without an officially known cause. But collections of proteins called plaques are often found in the brains of people with the disease. This does not confirm that these are the reason it develops.

Vascular dementia often occurs after a person suffers a stroke. It develops as the result of damage to the vessels that supply blood to the brain.

Your age and family history are probable factors that increase your risk of developing dementia. But you’re also more likely to get it if you’re a heavy drinker, you smoke, you have high blood pressure, and/or you have diseases or conditions such as depression, diabetes, or sleep apnea.

Dementia statistics: How many people get dementia?

Dementia risk

Dementia risk | iStock.com/wildpixel

As of 2015, the World Health Organization estimates that around 47 million people lived with dementia worldwide. Now, that number is likely closer to 50 million. This number is expected to triple by 2050.

Around the globe, a new case of dementia is diagnosed every 3 seconds.

Are dementia rates increasing — or is the population just aging?

There are actually a few possible reasons why it might seem like rates of dementia are increasing compared to previous decades.

One is that more medical professionals are attributing dementia as a primary cause of death, instead of citing related illnesses. Doctors are also diagnosing patients with dementia more frequently than they used to.

But what’s most important to remember — especially when you consider dementia risk overall — is that the population as a whole is getting older. People are living longer and surviving more illnesses than they used to. As you age, your dementia risk increases. People aged 65 and older are more at risk for the world’s deadliest diseases than younger people, and are simply more likely to get dementia at higher rates.

Will you get dementia in your lifetime?

Elderly woman alone

Elderly woman alone | DimaBerkut/iStock/Getty Images

Especially for those who have watched close family members experience dementia, the thought of going through it one day can seem worrisome. Because the exact cause of dementia isn’t always known, the chances of researchers finding a cure anytime soon are extremely low.

But that doesn’t mean you’re destined for a diagnosis — even if one or both of your parents had or have it. Genes are only one possible factor that slightly increases your dementia risk. From what we can tell right now, those lifestyle factors you can control — your alcohol consumption, for example — play a kind of role in your level of risk you actually have the power to stop.

The trouble with risk is that even if you exercise more, change your diet, quit smoking, and do everything possible to avoid getting dementia, there’s still a possibility you’ll get it anyway. But that doesn’t mean taking precautions isn’t worth it.

Experts urge that one of the best things you can do to lower your risk is to keep up with regular doctor’s visits. Detecting dementia early can significantly improve your quality of life if you’re ever diagnosed. It also allows for more time to attempt different interventions used to treat the condition.